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Marie Donoghue on Amazon’s NFL deal and Prime Video’s next steps in sport

Amazon’s vice president of global sports video reflects on the streaming giant’s debut year as the exclusive home of Thursday Night Football and discusses the company’s sports strategy moving forward.

17 Apr 2023 Ed Dixon

SportsPro/Getty Images

After all the buildup, Amazon’s debut campaign as the exclusive home of the National Football League’s (NFL) Thursday night games could be considered mission accomplished.

Having kicked off its debut broadcast with an average audience of 13 million viewers, Prime Video signed off the 2022 regular season averaging 9.58 million viewers per game, according to Nielsen figures.

A non-exclusive NFL broadcaster since 2017, much was expected from Amazon after the internet giant agreed an 11-year, US$1 billion-a-season deal to secure the league’s first ever digital-only package. Despite a few teething problems early on, including poor video quality and a choppy feed, the production ultimately received positive reviews, with the opening broadcast driving the most Prime signups for a single day on record.

Amazon has also been keen to highlight its youthful NFL audience, claiming it had the youngest median age of any NFL broadcaster since 2013. Viewership was also up 11 per cent from last season among the 18 to 34-year-old demographic.

With the 2022 season done and dusted, attention will now turn not just to year two of the NFL partnership, but also what could be next for Amazon in sports.

Before that, it is worth remembering how Amazon came to secure exclusive Thursday night coverage, a move which marked its biggest sports rights acquisition to date. According to Marie Donoghue, Amazon’s vice president of global sports video, there were plenty of hurdles to overcome to get there.

“We were good partners with the NFL and when the exclusive rights became available we had two issues,” says Donoghue, speaking at last month’s SportsPro OTT Summit USA in New York.

“Obviously we had one internally. It’s really expensive, so how do we convince Amazon that it’s a gamechanger and worth the money? And then, secondarily, it’s been a huge move for the biggest, most successful, widely watched sport in the US to go streaming only.

“So internally at Amazon, we make every major decision by writing a document. It’s basically a five or six-page document where you lay out why what you are proposing is really good for the customer and, of course, financial implications [for Amazon].

“We thought really broadly about it and we literally said you can’t look at this as you look at other sports properties. This is Thursday Night Football, this is a chance to own Thursday night and culture in America in the US.”

For Donoghue, the deal was not just a chance to make Prime Video synonymous with NFL Thursday nights, but also a “total gamechanger” for marketing Amazon’s original programming and wider entertainment offering on the platform.

“There aren’t that many headline benefits left,” she explains. “Prime is a membership service. Everyone knows about shipping, hopefully you know about music and Audible and other benefits you get. But the NFL makes headlines. You understand that as a real headline, material benefit.”

Amazon says its Thursday night audience last season had the youngest median age of any NFL broadcaster since 2013

Bezos said ‘don’t lose it’

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos learned of his company’s plans to go after Thursday night games, the 59-year-old’s response was brief.

“Bezos turned to me and said, ‘great idea, don’t lose it,’” reveals Donoghue.

With the contract signed, focus shifted to the broadcasts themselves.

“We really thought we could bring a new fresh approach, bring people closer to the game, make it more interactive,” Donoghue continues.

“To their credit, [the NFL] trusted us, they took a chance. The way [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell] always puts it is ‘bring every idea to my team, I want to hear everything’. They really do encourage us to think broadly and think big.”

The NFL has also benefitted Prime Video’s advertising business. Though Donoghue says this element of the Amazon operation already brings in “well over 20 billion a year”, she notes it is largely performance based and rooted in commerce. With its Thursday night games, the league added a whole new layer.

“The NFL for us in the US is the most premium video advertising inventory you can get,” Donoghue states.

A big step up

Amazon is the NFL’s first new broadcast partner in more than a decade, which meant the company could effectively start with a blank canvas. A team of around 60 people was quickly hired and NBC was drafted in to help with production, though Amazon retains creative control. As one would expect from a multibillion-dollar corporation, little expense was spared.

“We knew we could produce a great game, we needed the resources and we needed the right people,” says Donoghue. “But that’s just table stakes.

“Then, of course, you have the technology and the technical delivery. No one’s ever served as many concurrent users as we have. I think probably in Indian cricket they’ve served as many or more but not the 4K quality that we do.

“So there was a tonne of investment at Amazon that went in behind the scenes. I don’t know if any other company could have done it.”

Despite already streaming premium properties like the Premier League, Uefa Champions League and tennis Grand Slams in various markets, Donoghue acknowledges the NFL represented a “massive undertaking” for Amazon. Working with NBC and other third parties helped lighten the load, enabling the company to spend time on other broadcast innovations.

One of its NFL offerings was ‘Prime Vision’, an alternative feed that utilises stats, data and analytics from three different live sources to enhance the broadcast by giving viewers a new way to watch and understand the game. No second screen or virtual reality (VR) headsets are required, with graphic overlays instead used over the ‘All-22’ camera, which lets fans see every player on the field.

“We thought this was a great opportunity for those who want to learn a little more,” notes Donoghue.

“We’re testing and learning with all our alt feeds. But this is one that really, really resonated with fans. So we’re absolutely continuing with this one for sure and doubling down.

“One of the things we want to do is experiment. We wouldn’t put all that on the main feed because it’s quite distracting if you want to just sit back and watch the game. You’ll start to see some things migrate from that feed.”

Black Friday plans

The NFL has handed Amazon the league’s first-ever live game on Black Friday, which just so happens to be the biggest shopping day in the US.

The arrangement makes sense on a number of levels. Amazon is using its live NFL coverage to drive revenue from its core retail business. Now, the company has the chance to create a new football holiday that fuses live sport with ecommerce. To aid that, Amazon will make the Black Friday game available to anyone in the States for free, even if they are not a Prime Video subscriber.

“[Black Friday is] the top traffic day for Amazon,” says Donoghue. “We think that with all the shopping we’ll be able to do some pretty cool things around retail before, after and during the game.

“It’s actually going to be really tricky because it’s not that hard technically to serve retail offers and to do things around and in the game. What’s really hard is to make it intuitive, seamless and not distracting. So that’s really where we’re spending a lot of our time.”

Donoghue says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has encouraged Amazon to “think big” with its broadcasts

Amazon has been integrating commerce into its NFL coverage for several years, but Donoghue feels it still needs refining.

“To be honest, we’re not thrilled with the experience yet,” she admits. “Because it’s the one thing that, actually, if you purchase, it takes you out of the live experience, which we don’t like.

“Sometimes sports can be tricky based on licenses, exclusive licenses and things like that. So we want to make sure we have the best product. What you’ll see us do with Black Friday is focus on it being seamless and intuitive.

“It’s really important for us that we delight customers, not annoy them. So you won’t see us be overly aggressive. You’ll see us [be] similar to what we did this year with the alternate feeds and the different interactivity.

“When you’re watching a game, the worst thing is to have someone jump in with a promotion or something that distracts you. You’ll see us really focused on the opportunity when you’re not in the live game.”

Prime Video’s purpose

Many consumers, particularly in the US and the UK, initially became aware of Prime as a delivery service, not a platform for live sport. However, Donoghue points out that Prime Video’s live rights are a way of introducing people in other countries to the wider offering.

“We try to quickly become sports experts in that country and we work with our local leaders in those countries,” she says. “What we found is, similar to the US, what really breaks through are the marquee sports properties.”

In the case of Japan, Amazon picked up rights in the country to games involving the Samurai national team during the this year’s World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March.

“We’re blowing through our projections there,” notes Donoghue.

“We do ultimately start with the customer in that country. We have different models, we can put things in Prime Video, we can do channels. In the US, we had deals with MLB for MLB.TV, NBA for League Pass and NBA TV. We previously had PGA [golf], previously had UFC without having big exclusive licensing deals.

“Because we’re a streamer, it’s a great opportunity. We can be more interactive, we can have more two-way communication, we can serve customisation.

“There are a lot of countries where we have to forward invest in technology, in streaming. It doesn’t make sense to launch a sports property, I don’t believe, unless you have a marketing team on the ground in that country.”

To help grow its Prime service in Japan, Amazon snapped up rights to Samurai games during the World Baseball Classic

Local versus global

Amazon doesn’t appear ready to be finished with its investment in sports rights. Prime Video was in contention for the NFL’s Sunday Ticket out-of-market domestic package, which eventually went to Google-owned YouTube in a multi-year pact reportedly worth US$2.5 billion annually.

Other streaming services, though, have gone global, including Apple, whose ten-year rights deal with Major League Soccer (MLS) is believed to be worth US$250 million per season.

Donoghue says that Amazon tends to favour a local approach with sport, but Prime Video has the scope to think globally should opportunities arise.

“We do look at things locally but, obviously, we think we’re fairly unique or amongst a few set of potential global partners,” she says. “So we do look potentially at global opportunities.

“We talk about it not just in terms of us, because we have the opportunity to offer things globally, but we actually think we can provide that benefit to league partners because so many of them are trying to grow their footprint and their relevance outside the US.”

Prime Video is reportedly circling an NBA streaming package from 2025

Investing in original content

When people hear ‘Amazon’, they know most, if not all, of what the company offers. Prime Video’s sports brand, though, is still taking shape.

According to Donoghue, the likes of ESPN and Fox used shoulder programming, not just live broadcasts, to establish themselves. HBO, which exited boxing in 2018 after 45 years, is still revered by fans for its ‘24/7’ documentaries in the leadup to major events. Amazon intends to take a similar approach to get viewers onboard.

“We think it’s really important for us because we don’t have 24/7 sports,” says Donoghue. “We don’t want to start the audience from a standing start every time we have a game or event. We’re very focused on shoulder programming.

“Last year we started an original entertainment sports group. So we’re doing documentaries and we’re looking at other series.

“It’s a great opportunity to serve and engage with fans.”

Thinking long term

As for Amazon’s next sports rights deal, Donoghue remains tightlipped. Prime Video has been linked with a National Basketball Association (NBA) streaming package as part of the league’s next domestic broadcast contracts from 2025. Even if that doesn’t come to fruition, sport will continue to be a vital way to grow and promote Amazon’s ever-evolving services.

“If we’re long-term thinkers, we see a huge opportunity with sports,” concludes Donoghue. “If we were going to stop due to our penetration we wouldn’t have bought the NFL.

“Sports is, I think, the most riskless content you can buy. The only question is can you do it in a way that’s economically rational? That’s a lot of what my time is spent on. And there’s a huge advertising opportunity in the US. We don’t miss that.

“We think there’s plenty of growth in the sports business in the US.”

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